Sidekick actor Jeffrey Schecter catapulted himself to star status Wednesday, triumphantly pulling off a theatrical tour de force as Pseudolus in The Muny’s high-spirited “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” opening night.
A not-so-funny thing spurred his herculean effort. Peter Scolari, Emmy-winning actor known for “Bosom Buddies,” “Newhart” and “Girls,” had been rehearsing as the show’s narrator and wily slave but was unable to continue because of a miserable reaction to prevalent local allergens and worsening sinus infection.
“He had no voice left,” Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson told the audience. The show must go on, after all, so on Saturday night, July 1, Isaacson called versatile Schecter in New York. He was barely back home after playing Scuttle in “The Little Mermaid” June 20-29.
With only four days to prepare, Schecter accepted the daunting role that earned Tony Awards for comedic titans Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane.
No pressure, right? Only 10 songs — and Stephen Sondheim’s challenging words and music, no less! — plus five dances and many lines as the lynchpin in the 1962 Tony-winning musical farce.
A throwback to early stage comedies, “Forum” is a madcap romp set in ancient Rome.
Pseudolus bargains for his freedom with his charge Hero, whose blustery parents Senex and Domina go away together but return separately. The boy has fallen for a courtesan next door, Philia, but she has been sold to warrior Miles Gloriosus, who will arrive soon. In the meantime, another neighbor Erronius returns after searching for his two children, kidnapped by pirates.
Wackiness ensues as doors slam, potions are concocted, schemes are hatched and identities are mistaken. Director Gary Griffin emphasized the silliness as the situations became stickier, utilizing scenic designer Tim Mackabee’s efficient set, a trio of grand edifices, which were strikingly lit by lighting designer Rob Denton.
Because of its bawdy “frozen in time” material, this homage to vaudeville requires slick staging and crisp comic timing. A cast must work hard to overcome what could be construed as offensive sexual innuendo, once heavily favored in a bygone era. (Some are bothered; others are not.)
This spry cast of 18 had so much fun so we could have fun watching them have fun.
As he introduced a sensational “Comedy Tonight,” the nimble Schecter was greeted with rousing applause. He deftly broke the fourth wall and poured his heart into the show. Even though he carried the script, he barely relied on it.
Through sheer will and the audience’s abundant goodwill, Schecter soldiered on, acting like it was easy, and the second act’s pace picked up considerably.
But he could not have cavorted merrily onstage without the crucial support from an expert ensemble. The pliable performers zipped from one zany antic to the next, not skipping a beat.
First-rate improvisational veterans John Tartaglia as worrywart Hysterium, Mark Linn-Baker as frisky Senex and Jason Kravits as all-business Marcus Lycus helped turn the lascivious “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” into a highlight because of their outstanding showmanship.
The animated Tartaglia glided through his solo “I’m Calm,” and the climactic funeral sequence was a satisfying, swirling marvel of motion.
Shecter’s innate ability to make others shine was apparent as he advanced the action. A utility player with nine Broadway shows to his credit, including Mike in the acclaimed 2006 “A Chorus Line” revival, Mendel in the recent “Fiddler on the Roof” revival and Lefou in “Beauty and the Beast,” Schechter earned season MVP stripes. If there were stumbles, they were miniscule.
Nevertheless, because of changing comedic tastes, not everything works, notably the leering that was a staple of burlesque and Borscht Belt schtick, inescapable elements of a 55-year-old script.
Written by Burt Shevelove (“No, No Nanette”) and Larry Gelbart, creator of “M*A*S*H” and part of the legendary Sid Caesar writing stable that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen, “Forum” recalls variety show sketches du jour, often centering on women as sex objects. The basic premise, however, is taken from playwright Plautus (251 – 183 B.C.)
Downplay the ribald jokes and concentrate on the lively well-cast troupe. As the handsome young couple, Ali Ewoldt and Marrick Smith displayed velvety vocals in their duet, “Lovely.”
Ewoldt, such a dream as Maria in 2013’s stunning “West Side Story,” sweetly played a pretty but dim bulb while Smith, impressive as Perchik in last season’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” is likable as the lovestruck lad.
Belleville native Whit Reichert stole the show as the delightfully daffy Erronius. Nathaniel Hackmann, a memorable Gaston in both the Muny’s and Variety Club’s “Beauty and the Beast,” was gleefully over-the-top as swaggering Miles Gloriosus and so was E. Faye Butler as the shrewish Domina.
The five limber courtesans dazzled with choreographer Alex Sanchez’ jaw-dropping moves in “The House of Marcus Lycus.” Molly Callinan as Gymnasia and Justina Aveyard as Vibrata were particularly noteworthy, along with Emily Hsu and Lainie Sakakura as the Geminae, Katelyn Prominski as Panacea and Khori Michelle Petinaud as Tintinabula.
Rounding out the ensemble were Justin Keyes, Tommy Scrivens and Marcus Choi as adroit Proteans.
“Forum” was Sondheim’s first Broadway show featuring both his distinctive lyrics and music, after his early success as lyricist to composer Leonard Bernstein for “West Side Story” (1957) and Jule Styne for “Gypsy” (1959).
Music Director Brad Haak excels at Sondheim, capturing his patented nuances with great flair. He did so with 2015’s “Into the Woods” and The Rep’s award-winning “Follies” last fall. Sondheim’s “Forum” score features only 14 songs, so as not to get in the way of the comedy, and neither did Haak and Griffin, wisely keeping it simple.
However, costume colors, textures and styles did not always hit the mark. Designer Mara Blumenfeld chose blue and lavender outfits resembling 19th century ladies’ bathing suits for slaves Pseudolus and Hysterium. Regal robes were sparkly, Proteans were clad exclusively in bright orange, and Philia wore a pale pink that washed her out on the big stage and the cut did not accent her beauty.
Parallels are obvious to the-saves-the-day archetype made famous in the 1933 film “42nd Street,” when director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) tells ingenue Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler): “You're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!”
While that line has been quoted ever since, Marsh had also said in his pep talk: “… five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give.”
And that’s the true hallmark of this production, that everyone had to be all in for each other.
On that very same stage in 1972, I saw chorus girl Pat St. James superbly step in to play Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes” when Ann Miller, legend of stage and screen, was smacked by a boom opening night. People still talk about it.
Schecter just entered the pantheon of Forest Park lore. Yet, the way the Muny nurtures its talented ensembles will always make moments on that gigantic stage unforgettable.
Want to go?
- What: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”
- Where: The Muny
- When: 8:15 p.m. now through July 11
- Box Office: 314-361-1900
- Details: www.muny.org